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Mexican Widows Say Fear of Retaliation|Forced Them to Sue Mine in United States

PHOENIX (CN) - Widows of three miners killed in a methane explosion in a Mexican mine say that the mine owner's failure to address safety and health problems found in a government inspection led to the deaths of 65 miners. The women say they sued in Federal Court here to avoid "possible violent retaliation, including murder, from armed groups in Mexico."

Thirteen miners escaped while 65 were trapped and died in the Feb. 19, 2006 explosion at Pasta de Conchos mine in the state of Coahuila.

Rescue teams could not enter the mine after the explosion because of high levels of methane. The rescue was called off by mine-owner Grupo Mexico six days later when it was thought that none of the miners could have survived.

Each miner had been given "one oxygen pack with the capability of providing only six hours of oxygen," according to the complaint.

The women say their husbands' bodies have not been recovered.

The widows say that Grupo Mexico and its subsidiaries, Americas Mining Corp. and Southern Copper Corp., "failed and refused to take the necessary steps - steps which they were informed by the Mexican government as well as the miners themselves that they needed to take to prevent an imminent, fatal catastrophe of the type which transpired."

The Mexican government inspected a portion of the mine in July 2004, and recorded 48 "deficiencies," according to the complaint. It ordered Grupo Mexico to fix 34 of them, including high levels of methane, large amounts of combustible coal, and ventilation, electric and structural problems.

The widows say the National Mining and Metal Workers Union in Mexico went on strike 14 times before the explosion to protest Grupo Mexico's failure to address the safety and health issues in the government report.

After the explosion, the widows say Grupo Mexico refused their request for "records of the dustings, and also the laboratory analyses of the combustibility of the mine."

The Mexican Geological Service "concluded that a possible cause of the mine disaster included the fact that the mine was operating on a continuous basis at a higher capacity than recommended, resulting in carbon methane emissions reaching explosive levels," according to the complaint.

It also concluded that the explosion might have also been caused by accumulated coal dust and improper use of poorly maintained welding equipment, the complaint states.

The women say they were forced to sue Grupo Mexico in Phoenix because the Mexican legal system is "held captive by powerful economic interests, such as the defendants."

They say numerous unsuccessful attempts were made by the National Mining and Metal Workers Union, the miners themselves and the Catholic Church "to try to force the government to redress the problems which led to the mine disaster."

The widows seek a declaration under the Alien Tort Claims Act that Grupo Mexico violated their human rights, and damages for wrongful death.

They are represented by Daniel M. Kovalik with the United Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh, and Gerald Barrett with Ward, Keenan & Barrett in Phoenix.

Mining has played a key role in Mexican history, for political as well as economic reasons. Abuses at the U.S.-owned copper mines in Cananea, in Northern Mexico, helped set off the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

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